Valencia Street between 18th and 19th streets is home to a gourmet chocolatier, a funeral-home-turned-hipster-music-venue, a bakery with $6 rhubarb muffins, and an appliance store that sells refrigerators. Even 10 years ago, before Dandelion Chocolate, the Chapel, and Craftsman and Wolves moved in, the latter stood out. As Valencia continues to evolve as a destination for foodies and consumers of high-end fashion, the large appliance store has become an anomaly. “How does it survive?” people ask themselves as they walk by.
Aside from the fact that San Franciscans need top-loading washers and always will, the answer is simple: Cherin’s Appliance, Valencia’s oldest business, exists in part because the owners of the business also own the building within which it resides. They are their own landlord, and that makes all the difference.
Building ownership is the common thread for all of Valencia Street’s longest-standing businesses. Cherin’s Appliance opened in 1892, Lucca Ravioli in 1945, and Puerto Alegre, which still draws 45-minute waits for a table on weekends, opened in 1970. Zeitgeist, everyone’s favorite beer garden they love to hate, is the lesser-known longtimer. It opened as the Rainbow Cattle Company back in 1977.
The advantages of being one’s own landlord are many. Families can benefit financially for generations, businesses can root deeply in a neighborhood through local hires and by serving nearby residents, and — economic success pending — the choice of when to close can come naturally, with age, as opposed to the sharp increase of monthly rent.
Puerto Alegre is a perfect example of this. Ildefonso Vigil bought the building in 1968, when the neighborhood was quite different.
“People told him it was a terrible neighborhood, with a lot of liquor stores and X-rated theaters,” his daughter Amparo Vigil told el Restaurante last year. “They called him foolish, but my dad stuck to it.”
Amparo, her sister Patricia, and her brothers Lorenzo and William still run the business today. The patriarch, Ildefonso, is nearly 90, and has been able to pass an economic resource down several generations — his grandchildren and great-grandchildren now help out. Work by local artists hangs on the wall, and longtime neighborhood residents and tourists alike pack themselves in for margaritas and pozole. As they proudly state on their website, the owners say Puerto Alegre is “much more than a restaurant, more than walls.” It’s a family business, a rare and dying breed in San Francisco.
Several blocks away is Lucca Ravioli, which drew the city into collective mourning when the owners announced earlier this year that they were planning to close the business for good. But contrary to the immediate assumption that they were being evicted, the closure was a choice — and one not taken lightly.
The Feno family has owned the Italian grocery store and deli, and the multi-use building it’s in, since 1925. Francesco Stangalini bought a pasta company on Valencia Street after immigrating here in the early 20th century, while Michael Feno, who runs it today, began helping out in the shop at age 11.
This year, after more than 50 years of working in the shop, Feno decided it was time to retire — which in itself is a luxury. While no one else in the family plans to take over the business, they will still benefit: Feno listed the buildings his family owns for $1.45 million and $2.49 million, respectively. The small parking lot nearby, which Feno also owned, sold in January for $3 million.
The Vigils and the Fenos have both been able to run beloved businesses for decades, but in today’s wild west of commercial real estate, not everyone is so lucky. In the past few months, the Elbo Room, Casa Bonampak, Blue Fig, and Tawla have all closed along the Valencia corridor, or announced plans to do so. The days of a small family business being able to afford a commercial space on Valencia Street are gone; rents for retail spaces are in the tens of thousands per month, and buildings sell for far upward of a million dollars.
But support for preserving small businesses in their native neighborhoods — potentially for generations — is picking up speed. The Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) has for years purchased buildings around the Mission neighborhood to help keep rent-controlled tenants in place. The city’s Small Sites Program grants loans to nonprofits to purchase buildings before investors can — thereby preserving tenants, who are often low-income, in their longtime homes.
But as many buildings are mixed-use, with commercial spaces on the first floor and apartments above, MEDA has also gradually become the landlord for more than a dozen small businesses, many of which are owned by Latinx Mission residents. There’s Precita Eyes, the local art organization responsible for many of the Mission’s political murals, at 348 Precita Ave. The large building at 3182 24th St. is home to The Jelly Donut, Eyebrow Queen Salon, Teresita Nail Spa Jewelry, and Luz de Luna. And on the corner of 26th and Capp streets is San Fran Market, a colorful corner store that takes EBT.
It’s not the same as owning your own building, but in a city that doesn’t have commercial rent control, having MEDA as a landlord — which keeps its building seismically updated, renovated, and affordable — might even be better.
“We hear stories all the time about businesses paying $3,000 in rent, their leases end, and now the landlord wants $10,000,” Christopher Gil, MEDA’s associate director of marketing and communications, tells SF Weekly. “They can’t make their biz work anymore; it’s untenable.”
MEDA would know. It was evicted from the US Bank building on Mission Street more than a decade ago. They managed to find a new home, but their tenure there felt rocky, and in the end, the organization managed to buy a building on Mission and 19th streets, where it resides today, along with other nonprofits.
While MEDA has purchased many buildings along Mission and its smaller side streets, it has yet to secure anything on Valencia.
“Most of Valencia has already turned over,” Gil explains. “There’s not a lot left.”
Not a lot, that is, except for a few longtime buildings, kept off the market for decades, like Lucca Ravioli. Coincidentally, MEDA is working with tenants to make an offer on the old pasta shop’s building. It’s far from a done deal, but for the tenants who live above and next door to the famous pasta joint, it would provide enough stability to stay put, creating several fewer victims of Valencia Street’s fiery real estate market.
While change is inevitable and the city is constantly evolving, there is significant value in preserving those people and businesses who want desperately to stay in their neighborhoods — for all of us. There is value in being able to eat enchiladas at Puerto Alegre year after year, to spending yet another drunken afternoon at Zeitgeist, to picking up a tray of ravioli from Lucca’s, or being able to take a bus to buy an appliance from a 127-year-old family-owned store that, funnily enough, sells some charming replicas of vintage refrigerators.